Rooftops of Tehran

by Mahbod Seraji

NAL Trade | October 2009 | 368 pages

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

mahbod seraji

Iran is in the news these days either because of Western fears she is developing nuclear weapons (which could upset the balance of power in the Middle East and the world) or because her people are demonstrating against what they consider to be election fraud. Thousands of Iranians have poured into the street of Tehran to protest the re-election of Ahmadinejad, the narrow-eyed, wiry president who has the audacity to deny the Holocaust!

If we know the recent history of Iran, once part of ancient Persia, we would applaud the Iranian people for their courage, for such was not always the case.

In the 1970’s, Iran was ruled by the Shah, whose secret police, the SAVAK, engaged in such frightful practices that the Iranian people grew to become paranoid, afraid to trust their own neighbors for fear of being thrown into prison for indeterminate periods of time and tortured.

Here’s what Ryszard Kapuscinski has to say about the SAVAK in his book, Shah of Shahs :

“The ubiquitous terror drove people crazy, made them so paranoid they couldn’t credit anyone with being honest, pure, or courageous. After all, they considered themselves honest and yet they couldn’t bring themselves to express an opinion or a judgment, to make any sort of accusation, because they knew punishment lay ruthlessly in wait for them…. Nobody actually knew where SAVAK was located. The organization had no headquarters. Dispersed all over the city (and all over the country), it was everywhere and nowhere. It occupied houses, villas, and apartments no one ever paid any attention to…. Whoever fell into the grip of that organization disappeared without a trace, sometimes forever. They might be locked up in a prison, but which one? There were six thousand…Savak censored the press, books, and films (it was Savak that banned the plays of Shakespeare and Moliere because they criticized monarchical and aristocratic vices.) Savak ruled in the universities, offices, and factories. A monstrously over grown cephalopod, it entangled everything, crept into every crack and corner, glued its suckers everywhere, ferreted and sniffed in all directions, scratched and bored through every level of existence.

“They would kidnap a man as he walked along the street, blindfold him, and lead him straight into the torture chamber without asking a single question. There they would start in with the whole macabre routine—breaking bones, pulling out fingernails, forcing hands into hot oven, drilling into the living skull, and scores of other brutalities—in the end, when the victim has gone made with pain and become a smashed, bloody mass, they would proceed to establish his identity.”

Worst of the torture methods of the SAVAK was “the frying pan,” a steel table that was heated until it literally fried its occupant. One might ask what macabre psychological mechanism resides in the human psyche that allows people to participate in such torture of their fellow man.

While the SAVAK was torturing it’s own people, often for no reason at all, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was intent on bringing Iran into the modern age—within a generation, with the quiet help of the United States, he would make Iran, a then backward, disorganized, half-literate, barefoot nation, into the fifth greatest power on earth. Under the slogan, “Prosperity for All,” the Shah would build atomic power plants, electronic factories, steel mills, and great industrial complexes. He would equip Iran with modern highways and means of transportation.

Presidents of multinational corporations, directors of great conglomerates, representatives of famous companies from all over the world stood in line for the contracts the Shah was handing out like candy on Halloween. George Orwell would have had a field day with the sad irony behind the Shah’s grandiosity. That the Shah neglected to build the infrastructure necessary to accommodate his vision of a Great Civilization was but a small oversight.

But who are these people? A new, semiautobiographical, debut novel, Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji, is set in the 1970’s before the overturn of the Shah, during the time of national paranoia because of the SAVAK.

Statistics are well and good, but nothing gives as much insight into the character of a people as a well-written novel. War and Peace tells more about the Russian character than any number of statistical surveys, just as Gone With the Wind tells us more about peoples’ struggles during the American Civil War than any number of reports of battles fought and numbers killed.

Madame Bovary tells the careful reader more about bourgeoisie France of the mid-19th Century, and Marcel Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past informs us of more about the fin de siècle France, than can be gained by any other means.

Rooftops of Tehran follows in the same tradition, and gives us tremendous insight into the Persian character.

A quote from the credits on the book’s back cover: “In a middle-class neighborhood of Iran’s sprawling capital city, 17-year-old Pasha Shahed spends the summer of 1973 on his rooftop with his best friend Ahmed, joking around one minute and asking burning questions about life the next. He also hides a secret love for his beautiful neighbor Zari, who has been betrothed since birth to another man. But the bliss of Pasha and Zari’s stolen time together is shattered when Pasha unwittingly acts as a beacon for the Shah’s secret police. The violent consequences awaken him to the reality of living under a powerful despot and lead Zari to make a shocking choice.”

Rooftops of Tehran is at once a gentle romance and a political statement. It affirms the resiliency and courage of the human spirit against all odds. Various characteristics of those who people the novel, make them human and endearing:

What’s remarkable about what’s going on in present day Iran, in my estimation, is that it’s a demonstration of what was once impossible, becoming possible. During the 1970’s, Iranians were unable to resist the SAVAK because of fear. Now they have the courage to defy another repressive regime, although not as lethal as the SAVAK, and demand their rights as a free people. It seems to me that Iran is a country where the people’s demand for free expression will not be quieted until it is attained, teaching us once again the lesson that sometimes defeat paves the way for victory.

Jane M McCabe is a freelance writer and former teacher living in Amargosa Valley, NV.

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